As the global outbreak of coronavirus continues to evolve, companies of all shapes and sizes face a crisis unlike any they have faced before. Yet in spite of the differences between coronavirus and other challenges, many of the fundamental principles of crisis communications still apply.
Keep these key principles in mind as you develop communications amid the outbreak.
Do not over-communicate.
Remember that virtually every other entity—including federal, state and local government officials, school leaders, restaurants, retailers—are communicating with the public during this time. To make the most of your efforts, focus on your key audiences. (For most companies, this will be your employees.)
When communicating with clients or customers, ensure messages are relevant and helpful, rather than adding more noise to an already overwhelming situation. In many cases, updates about what businesses are doing to clean their stores or weather the financial storm are irrelevant to clients or customers. If you feel the need to communicate with those external audiences, make sure you’re doing so in a way that speaks to their unique needs.
Above all, avoid sending marketing emails—especially marketing emails that are thinly veiled as coronavirus updates. Doing so makes you look tone-deaf and could backfire. (In the past week I’ve unsubscribed from more email lists than I knew I was on, and my bet would be that the same is true for many others.) If you never email a particular list in regular circumstances, ask yourself what good it will do to email it now.
In contrast to email, social media platforms allow organizations to respond directly to your audience members’ unique needs and expectations. The real-time and targeted nature of social media represents a distinct advantage over email or earned media and gives companies an opportunity to put a human face on the situation, its impact and the company’s response.
Avoid one-sided communications.
Until recently, the conventional wisdom in corporate crisis communications has been to communicate only what is absolutely required to mitigate a crisis. In recent years, however, a long list of factors rendered that wisdom outdated. Near the top of the list are changing cultural norms that require more accountability from business leaders to their employees.
One-sided, top-down, opaque communications—especially to employees—make you look out of touch. They also make it look like you’ve got something to hide, which fuels uncertainty and leaves the door open for rumor and gossip.
A good way to avoid these risks is to bring employees into a two-sided, transparent conversation. When you invite employees into the conversation in an authentic way and give them a legitimate voice in decision-making, those tough decisions aren’t nearly as hard to make. Giving employees a view into the decision-making process helps maintain trust in the relationship, and helps blunt the impact of the hardest decisions you may have to make.
Lead with honesty—not unsupportable positivity.
This uncertain time is stressful for everyone. At the leadership level, you might fear a loss of clients or customers threatens your company’s resilience. Remember that your employees are feeling similar stresses. They are seeing news about massive layoffs, and probably have friends or family who have been affected. Even if your company is on relatively solid ground, anxiety abounds.
There’s always a temptation to put a positive spin on the situation. Indeed, one of the maxims of crisis communications is to avoid repeating the negative, but even that conventional wisdom is changing in recent years as audiences of all kinds become more skeptical of what they hear from their leaders, whether in politics, business or other spheres.
Communications in the midst of a crisis like this should balance realism with positivity. Realism about the situation you’re in, the challenges you’re facing and your plan to mitigate those challenges will help employees know you’re being honest with them. Doing so in a way that stresses positivity and optimism will help avoid causing unnecessary panic.
It’s also important to remember that, especially in times of crisis, leadership often requires sacrifice. Finding ways to be generous with your employees, customers and community during uncertainty and panic will demonstrate leadership, build trust and ease anxieties.
The coronavirus pandemic itself is not changing the crisis communications landscape, but it is bringing recent evolutions of that landscape into sharp relief for many companies, institutions and individuals. It’s also highlighting the need to stay on top of the trends so you can be prepared to communicate through unexpected challenges.
Christian Pinkston is the founder and a partner at Pinkston, a strategic communications firm based in Falls Church, Va.
Get more insights on how to manage through the current crisis by joining Ragan’s Crisis Leadership Board.